You know what’s gone missing? The crowd-pleaser, that’s what. We live in an era of great, serious TV – the lineup for this weekend is outstanding – yet there’s a glumness about much of it. Comedy becomes activist theatre, drama becomes gloomily intense. Well, there’s relief at last.
The Flight Attendant (HBO Canada, streaming on Crave) returns for season two, and not a moment too soon. The first season came in late 2020 and was greeted ecstatically as an incredibly light, enjoyable miniseries made with great panache, and with Kaley Cuoco from The Big Bang Theory allowed to soar. As Cassie, a flight attendant and self-admitted good-time gal who drinks and parties heavily, Cuoco was a joy to watch. There was intrigue, murder and fun, and it all worked.
The second season shifts things, but never loses sight of the vital fun factor; Cuoco continues to be tremendously good as a physical presence. Cassie’s sober now, living in Los Angeles, and even the AA meetings, where we meet her, have droll comedy. She is proud to say, “I’m two days away from being a year sober. Life feels pretty great.” That’s shot down. Her gravelly voiced AA sponsor Brenda (Shohreh Aghdashloo) sighs and says, “I thought I was acing recovery, until I burned my house down.”
A reason for Cassie’s happiness is a part-time gig she’s acquired that fits in with her flight-attendant job. She’s a “civilian asset” for the CIA, asked to keep an eye on people or events in far-flung cities she visits. In Berlin, she gets a little too close to her target, and a bomb explodes. That’s just the start. What’s enormously impressive is, again, the sheer pizzazz and visual flair. There’s something slightly ridiculous about Cassie attempting to follow her target dressed to the nines in red, but the humour in it is delicious. Few can scurry about, using her body and facial expressions, with Cuoco’s comic verve.
There’s more than screwball vivacity, though. Cassie sees a woman who looks exactly like her, and then another one. Clones, or dastardly plan to foil her spying? No. These are versions of who Cassie might be, and Cuoco’s skill in engaging with multiple versions is deeply impressive. Then there’s the merciless humour of Cassie’s best friend Ani (Zosia Mamet) and, by the way, Sharon Stone turns up as Cassie’s mom. A delight to watch, two episodes now, with more coming weekly.
Also airing/streaming this weekend – Barry (Sunday, HBO/Crave, 10 p.m.) is back, too, and this is next-level TV. The multi-Emmy-winning series is darker and stranger than ever. You might need a catch-up on the plot lines involving Barry (Bill Hader), the hitman-turned-actor, and the drug war between the Chechens, the Bolivians and, sometimes, the Burmese. But it’s worth catching up. What Hader and co-creator Alec Berg have done is enormously ambitious; a dark comedy, a character study of Barry himself and a subtly scathing look at Hollywood. Barry wants to be an actor and what is often brewing is just that: acting. That is, Barry’s numb hitman needs a role, as does every character here. The rapport between Hader and Henry Winkler, as acting coach Gene Cousineau, is remarkable, their scenes an absolute joy to watch. And then there’s Barry’s formidably well-meaning girlfriend Sally (Canadian Sarah Goldberg). Barry is simply a masterpiece of deeply humane, hilarious satire.
Navalny (Sunday, CNN, 9 p.m.) is the TV debut of the award-winning feature documentary (made by Canadian Daniel Roher) about Russian dissident Alexei Navalny. It is, in the context of current events, a staggering achievement, as a probing, tense and propulsive story of the charismatic and determined man who challenges everything about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. They tried to poison Navalny, they imprisoned him, and yet his presence is a rebuke to what Russia has become under Putin. It is more chilling and absorbing than any spy fiction, because it’s all real, and ominous, too.
Finally, you can check out the new Speaking Freely (Sunday, TLN, 8 p.m.), an unhurried and calm discussion show about current issues. The host is the articulate and relaxed Dr. Rafael Gomez. The idea is to talk to ordinary people and then interview experts or people with a strong position on topics. The opening program asks the question, “Is The Media Becoming the Message?” – the idea being that traditional media has little relevance. The three interviewees are, regrettably, essentially only speaking from a right-wing perspective and include Tara Henley, Jen Gerson and Jamil Jivani. An interesting, but shockingly limited lens.
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